Updated 23 July 2013

Teen self-consciousness is biological

Teenage self-consciousness is biological and just anticipating being watched can trigger emotional response, researchers say.


Many teens are concerned about what other kids think of them, and this self-consciousness is linked with specific body and brain responses that appear to begin and peak in adolescence, a new study has found.

Researchers put 69 volunteers, aged 8 to 23, in a situation in which they believed they were being observed by another person their own age and monitored the participants' emotional, body and brain responses.

The goal was to determine if just being looked at might trigger more intense body and brain responses in teens than in children and adults. That turned out to be the case, the researchers reported recently in the journal Psychological Science.

"Our findings suggest that being watched and, to some extent, anticipating being watched were sufficient to elicit self-conscious emotional responses at each level of measurement," said lead researcher Leah Somerville.

The researchers also found that while being observed, the teens showed increased connectivity between two areas of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex and the striatum. The medial prefrontal cortex is a late-developing region of the brain and the striatum is involved in behaviours and actions.

"Our study identifies adolescence as a unique period of the lifespan in which self-conscious emotion, physiological reactivity and activity in specific brain areas converge and peak in response to being evaluated by others," Somerville said in a journal news release.

The heightened activity between the medial prefrontal cortex and striatum seen in the study may help explain why teens often engage in risky behaviors when they're with other teens, the researchers said.

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